Finding the next Sadio Mane – Tactical Analysis

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Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, the poster boys of a modern day football front three and all that can be accomplished, are all out of contract at the end of the 2022-23 season. The electric trio defined Liverpool’s success in the late 2010s, including a Premier League and UEFA Champions League triumph, and a runners-up medal in both competitions. But now approaching or already hitting 30 years old, Liverpool need to start to prepare for life without their illustrious front three. So with that, in this tactical transfer series, we attempt to identify the next Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. We’re looking for players not only capable of leading the Reds to more title triumphs, but players young enough to do so over the next five years. Today, we find the next Sadio Mane.

CRITERIA

Before delving into the realm of potential replacements for three modern greats, we first must come to a deeper understanding of Liverpool’s style of play. Assuming Jurgen Klopp stays at the helm of Liverpool, you can expect principles like high-pressing, high-tempo passing, intellectual build-up, positional play, and “heavy-metal football” to remain in-tact. As a result, the players they bring in need to fit this style. They need to be capable pressers, and already have built-in experience playing for a side that favours pressing high over sitting deep. They need to be capable on the ball and intelligent with their movement, capable of playing in a similar vein to Liverpool’s current front-three. That includes wingers pacing up the field at great speed ahead of the striker. The Salah and Mane replacements need to be more than just out-and-out sideline huggers, but capable of playing on both feet, drifting and cutting inside, and taking up inverted positions high up the field. Finally, the speed of play in everything they do needs to be high. Heavy-metal football is taxing and trying, so durability in the form of a low injury record will be key, in addition to all other metrics of athleticism such as speed, acceleration and physicality.

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It’s worth noting that we’re also trying to replace players approaching their thirties, in the quest to identify long-term replacements capable of still reaching their very best, similar to what Liverpool accomplished when they signed each of the Liverpool trio in the first place. As a result, we’re only looking at players under the age of 26. The replacements could easily have a year to learn from their proposed predecessor before they fully go through the exit door, and so they need to be patient enough not to necessarily need to fit in right away.

So with that in mind, let’s now go on this wild search for the next goal-scoring hero, capable of coming close to the insane levels of Sadio Mane at Liverpool.

THE ROLE OF SADIO MANE

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With an undeniable talent in front of goal and relentless defensive output, Sadio Mane is far from easy to replace. But we’re going to try and accomplish exactly that, by finding someone similar in style, and hopefully someone close enough in ability. So let’s talk about Mane’s style.

Sadio Mane, like Salah, is one of the paciest forwards around. The Senegalese forward frequently uses his speed to get in behind the opposition defense, as the team’s centre-forward drops in deep. But even more than Firmino and Salah, Mane doesn’t just use his pace and power in attack, but expertly uses it to gain advantages in defense. The former Southampton man has reliably been at the top of the tackling charts among players in his position since arriving in the Prem, and excels in Klopp’s heavy metal pressing style. When it comes to winning the ball back for his team, either through his pressure or tackling, Mane makes the biggest impact of the front-three. The Mane replacement, in an ideal world, would therefore be someone who is not only a goal-scoring hero, but a defensive devil as well.

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In conjunction with scoring and defending, Mane’s strengths all boil down to his energy, power and reliability in awareness of space. Incredibly adept at getting into the right positions, Sadio Mane’s goal tallies throughout his career could be even higher. His scanning of the field is outstanding, receiving more progressive passes per 90 (11.1) than 98% of the players in his position. If his finishing boots were up to the same level, Mane might have been able to reach Mohamed Salah’s goal-scoring heights with the Reds. This season the former Southampton man has hit 3.1 shots per game, but only scored 8 goals. That equates to a goal for every 0.13 shots, which is bested by all three of Firmino (0.27), Salah (0.18) and Jota (0.17) this season. Finding a player who scores as many goals will always be difficult, but Liverpool could perhaps find a player with more class and efficiency in front of goal. The same could also be said about things like dribbling (56% success), passing (77%), pressing (30%) and tackling (33%). It’s amazing to have a player so consistent across the board in so many different statistical categories, but you could find someone better in each of those areas.

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Before moving on to the candidates, it’s worth noting that Mane only bagged 21 Premier League goals between his two seasons with the Saints before moving to the Reds, 3 of which came in that incredible fastest hat-trick record-breaking game. Many of our candidates are already better in that capacity, and could easily rise to greater, meteoric success in a similar to vein to what Mane achieved when he made the move and soon afterward scored 22 goals in a single Golden Boot winning season. Our chosen player doesn’t need to be the finished product yet, and that is important to keep in mind, as we exclude the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Vinicius Junior from our search – who evidently would be great, but already play for some of the best teams in the world. So with that, let’s jump into the candidates in the quest to find the next Sadio Mane.

the candidates

1. CHRISTOPHER NKUNKU

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Since being released from PSG in 2019, Christopher Nkunku has come on leaps and bounds with each and every season at Leipzig. 16 goals and 8 assists in 26 combined Bundesliga and Champions League matches this season almost sounds too good to be true. In fact, the Frenchman has already beaten the 7 goals and 8 assists he managed in the whole of last campaign. His rise to stardom has been extraordinarily rapid, to the point where he is now the team’s most important player, an un-droppable figure for Tedesco’s team.

When looking at the stats, the 24-year-old is more or less a weird mix of Salah and Mane together. The silky smooth footwork the Frenchman possesses is practically unrivalled in the Bundesliga (now that Sancho is gone), and that shows in the fact that he’s dribbled past 44 players this season, the 3rd most in the league. Mane’s dribbling power comes much more from his raw pace and power, whereas Nkunku’s comes from his skill. The two fiery forwards are not a perfect match, but there are still many similarities that would make the Leipzig man an excellent Mane successor. He can play on the right side or even up top in a front two, but this season has spent the majority of time on the left wing, cutting onto his right foot. He boasts an impressive ‘shot on target’ percentage of 48%, which beats the Senegalese striker by 14%. Nkunku also ranks highest of all our shortlisted players in several attacking categories, including shot-creating actions (83), passes into the final third (32), key passes (34), passing percentage (79%) and progressive passes (65).

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With the most progressive passes received in the Bundesliga this season, Nkunku has also demonstrated an ability to find the right pockets of space (one of Mane’s strengths), but boasts a better shooting and scoring accuracy (one of Mane’s weaknesses). So while Nkunku might not match Mane for pace, he beats him for accuracy.

Importantly, his pressure percentage is also the highest of the players we’ve studied (32%), and the same can be said of his total pressures in the attacking third (137), blocks (23) and interceptions (17). He’s not as tough of a tackler as Mane, but the important thing is that he’s always busy, whether it be in attack or defense. That, perhaps more than anything else, is the quality Liverpool should look to ensure stays in-tact as they find their next Sadio Mane. Klopp and co. need someone who never stops running, and never stops pushing the team forward. That man might just be Christopher Nkunku.

2. EMMANUEL DENNIS

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Speaking of busy forwards who make a massive impact in all phases of the game, Emmanuel Dennis has been the busiest of bees (or rather hornets) in Watford’s hive of talented forwards. The Nigerian forward has been plucked out of obscurity to go on and score 8 goals with 5 assists in his first season with Watford, already beating his highest scoring season in the Belgian First Division (7). Nothing he has done in the Premier League this season can be compared to any other season in a European top five league, so we don’t necessarily know whether or not he can sustain this form. But the signs are encouraging, and again, Klopp has a track record of turning good forwards into great ones.

Dennis’ ‘shot-on-target’ percentage reaches 52.6% this season, smashing Mane’s 34%. That would be a massive help for Liverpool, given that Mane so often gets into the right positions, only to fire his chance over the bar. Then when it comes to speed, power, defensive work rate, and press-resistance, Dennis and Mane are the kind of match you could light a birthday candle with. The 24-year-old has won 1.04 tackles per 90 this season, the most of our four candidates, and Mane himself. His exceptional goal per shot ratio of 0.21 is also 0.08 points higher than Mane’s, having scored 8 goals from 38 shots this season. That may seem low to the untrained eye, but to put it into context – Mane’s scored 8 goals from 62 shots this season. You can feel the power behind every single shot Dennis takes, and he’s absolutely rapid on the break, comfortably getting himself into great positions from speed alone.

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Unlike Nkunku, there are a few statistical categories that Dennis pales in comparison to the others. Pressing less in the attacking third is to expected of a Watford man (especially in a team led by Ranieri), but his pressure percentage sits at just 23.5%. He also hasn’t quite mastered the art of slowing down his speed to ensure he keeps hold of the ball, with a dribbling percentage of 41%, to Mane’s 56%. In short, the 5’9 forward has some of the highest highs when it comes to matching Mane’s style, pace and power. But he also has some of the lowest lows, and would likely need the longest to fully develop his Mane potential.

3. RAFAEL LEAO

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AC Milan’s Rafael Leao is an exceptionally interesting player, who perfectly encapsulates the happy medium between speed and skill. The Portuguese trickster is not the most notorious of goal-scorers, but he is one of the more notorious nightmares…and we mean that in a good way. Just see his dribble success rate of 65.4% for context, or any of his insane carrying statistics, where he leads our data search in progressive carries (9.7), carries into the final third (3.25), carries into the penalty area (2.36), total progressive carrying distance (188) and even the least amount of times dispossessed (1.82), all on a per 90 basis. All of this points to a heavy weight he carries (pun intended) on his shoulders to make magic happen for AC Milan. But it also indicates his hunger and determination to get at the opposition and frustrate them to the dizzying point where they’re seeing stars. That star is Rafael Leao, dancing his way around the stadium.

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But don’t order yet, Liverpool, there’s more. In addition to beating the most players, Leao also boasts the highest tackling percentage of all our players studied (43%). He’s not just effective at the front-end of the pitch with the ball at his feet, but also with the ball at the feet of his opposition. His pressure success percentage of 31.5% points to, at the very least, some degree of press-ability, even if AC Milan are not the highest of pressing teams. As if that wasn’t already enough (it is very much a two horse race between Leao and Nkunku at this point), his passing statistics tell a story of a man who knows his way around a football pitch. Oozing swagger and class all wrapped up in one meal, the 22-year-old has impressed with the most passes into the penalty area (1.89), progressive passes (4.19) and passes into the final third (1.89) on a per 90 basis of our candidates. The only downside is his goal tally of 6 in 19 matches, from 52 shots. But again, the more important facet is perhaps efficiency, to which Leao compares decenlty well. His shot on target percentage of 41% beats Sadio Mane, and he’s claimed 1.41 shots on target per 90, a big improvement from Mane’s 1.10.

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Despite the fact that he smiles as he beats players and just clearly loves to play football, we must remind ourselves that Leao is the star man in an AC Milan team that relies so heavily on his pace and power out wide, and that he won’t necessarily have that attention at Liverpool. That could however be a great thing, as he continues to establish himself as someone who can produce for others, without the burden of being the main source of goals and assists for his team.

4. LUIS DIAZ

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A lesser known name that Liverpool have been linked with, Luis Diaz has enjoyed an extraordinary start to the season at Porto in Liga NOS. The Colombian wing wizard perfectly exemplifies Sadio Mane’s high-octane, high-pressing style, and is both a dynamic dribbler and super shooter. 14 goals and 4 assists in 18 matches will certainly catch the attention of the Reds, but the jury is still out on how transferrable that could be to the best league in the world. Positively, Diaz is extraordinarily good with the ball at his feet, from both a dribbling and passing perspective. The Colombian has completed nearly 82% of his passes this season, which is quite high for a left-winger with his style of play (and certainly higher than Liverpool’s current front-three). He’s also completed 2.6 take-on’s per game, helping to boost his shot tally to 3.6 per game – which is immensely active and impressive.

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In terms of style of play, Luis Diaz fits like a glove. In terms of transferability from one league to another, we’ll have to see it to believe it. But being that he’s 25-years-old already, he could adjust to life at Anfield quicker than most, and Liverpool will have studied him closely – from having come up against him in the UEFA Champions League this season. So if he ultimately does sign for the Reds, you know it’s going to have been thought out meticulously through every angle. With an energetic ‘never stop running’ mentality that will suit him well, Luis Diaz could certainly be the man to replace Sadio Mane in the future.

5. RICHARLISON

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Our final pick might shock you, but Richarlison fits the Mane bill at a non-counterfeit level, and the two possess so many similar strengths. Like Emmanuel Dennis, Richarlison is just pure running power, goal-scoring ability and defensive work rate. He’s not brilliant on the ball, he’s not even brilliant when it comes to finishing off chances, but he will work tirelessly, and naturally create chances for himself through his hard work. If the scientists at Liverpool were to clone Sadio Mane, chances are one of the clones would come out accidentally looking more like Richarlison.

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But whether it’s a product of Rafa Benitez or Richarlison’s own lack of genuine star talent, most of his attacking statistics are woeful. He only stands out in our search when it comes to tackling percentage (a mediocre 37.5%), and pressures in the attacking third (8.58 per 90). In just about everything else he ranks near the bottom, so we won’t spend too long here. The thing is – when it comes to Mane styled swank, and finding a player who gets up and down the left side like no tomorrow and then scores the occasional blinder, Richarlison is a twin to Mane. Unfortunately, he’s more so the jealous type of twin who never really reached the same levels as his brother. But the narrative around that (the narrative we just created now) could so easily change under Klopp. The Brazilian is still only 24, and has had several successful seasons scoring goals in England. His price tag would likely be outrageous given that you could likely buy any of the above players for cheaper. But hey, wouldn’t it be fun to see a player move from one Merseyside club to another?

Safe to say we’ve narrowed it down to three.

VERDICT

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As we found out, finding Sadio Mane’s replacement at Liverpool is a tough task. He may not have as much versatility in skillset as Firmino and Salah, but his talent levels are supreme. Out of all the candidates, Luis Diaz and Emmanuel Dennis might be the closest clones. The Nigerian forward and Colombian winger are just sheer speed and scoring power, which, without underselling all of this, is Mane to a tee. Then you have Rafael Leao, who is so much more skillful than the Senegalese striker, but lacks the exact trait we would most want to find in a future Mane replacement (better scoring and shooting accuracy). So with that, we have to go with Leipzig’s one and only Christopher Nkunku.

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You wouldn’t be able to ‘go fish’ in a game of cards with Christopher Nkunku and Sadio Mane, but the Frenchman is the most talented of all shortlisted players. In fact, there are very few players on earth (Declan Rice would certainly be one of them), who are better than Nkunku without already playing for one of Europe’s elite. While the Reds would love to have someone like Kylian Mbappe or Vinicius Junior, we have to be realistic, and not break Liverpool’s bank account. So before anyone else snatches up the press-resistant Frenchman, Jurgen Klopp needs to get on the phone with Nkunku and make him an offer he can’t resist (or press-resist). The best thing about the Leipzig man, which is also a characteristic of Mane himself, is that he’s never quiet. Even when not as his best, he’s always busy, making things happen for his team. Out of all his stellar statistics, Nkunku’s impressive 83 shot creating actions this season speaks for itself, especially given the next highest in our case study was Leao on 58.

According to Transfermarkt, the 24-year-old would cost Liverpool around £46 million, which seems like a bargain. When you consider his career could only go up from here, and that he could easily play anywhere in Liverpool’s attack, Christopher Nkunku has to be one of Jurgen Klopp’s top transfer targets, all ends up.


So there it is! Our attempt to find the next Sadio Mane for Liverpool, in this tactical analysis. Be sure to check out more from our Transfer Market Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Also be sure to check out more from this series, where we analyzed who might be the next Roberto Firmino, and the next Mohamed Salah. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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